Black Political Power Summit Convenes

Panelists at the event co-sponsored by GSPM and other groups discussed ways to increase the number of African Americans holding elective offices.

Panelists at the Black Political Power Summit discussed strategies to increase the number of blacks in elective offices. (William Atkins/GW Today)
September 01, 2017

By B. L. Wilson

The Collective Political Action Committee, founded a year ago by the husband and wife team of Quentin and Stephanie Brown James, has a specific mission—getting more blacks elected to political offices.

Mr. James said working on the election and re-election of President Barack Obama made him want to dream bigger. Though four of the five candidates endorsed by their political action committee in 2016 won races in Delaware, Virginia, Florida and California, he said, state by state, African Americans have a daunting challenge in achieving equitable representation.

“When we look at some of the state legislatures around the country, when we look at the governor’s mansions around the country, there are very few African Americans serving where we need them to,” he said.

The Collective brought together a racially diverse group of political analysts and organizers for the Black Political Power Summit at the George Washington University’s Jack Morton Auditorium Monday afternoon. The event was co-sponsored by the GW Graduate School of Political Management,, American Votes and other political action groups.

GSPM's Senior Marketing Director Jonathan McGee welcomed the group, noting the importance of being engaged civically, politically and socially. 

“There’s a famous saying that applies to why we are all here today,” Mr. McGee said. “You may not care about politics, but that does not mean that politics does not care about you…. Given the Collective’s goal of closing the diversity gap facing African Americans in 2018 and 2020, we are excited to support such an important mission.”

Mr. James said that in order to move issues such as criminal justice reform, affordable housing and education to the top of federal and state government agendas, African Americans need more officials who share the values of their communities.

“We want to move from just strictly protests and being on the outside to actually having advocates on the inside, who know our interests and who will go to bat on behalf of our communities,” he said.  

The collective invited a panel of strategists and political consultants to provide guidance in building black civic participation in preparation for elections in 2018 and 2020.

Derrick Johnson, the interim director of the NAACP, said that too often black voters end up carrying water for both political parties who pay millions of dollars to consultants who wait until the last month of the campaign before targeting black voters. In national elections, he noted, black voters often perform above their weight and could make the difference in midterm elections if black institutions were used to identify black voters and get them to the polls.

In terms of performance, no voter group exercises more power in block than black women, 93 percent of whom voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential general election. And yet, said Melanie Campbell, the president and CEO of the National Council on Black Civic Engagement, “We are not being respected in that way.”

Republicans and Democrats may hire a black woman, Ms. Campbell said, but that is not enough. “It’s not just about voting. It’s who is making the decisions and who are the actors behind the curtains, making bad decisions and still getting paid,” she said.

Black women are running for state and local offices in 2018 in Georgia’s gubernatorial race and for mayor of Cincinnati, but in these and past races, Joshua DuBois of Value Partnerships said, black women candidates often run into difficulty winning the support of the African American establishment.

“We have to start with what we can do. We can start with the candidates we have already and get behind candidates, particularly black women, who are already out there,” he said.

One of the most significant ways the black community can do that, he said, “is by giving other black people money.”

Significant hurdles will have to be overcome from tactics designed to discourage and suppress the vote in the black community, such as voter ID laws, restricted polling places and restrictions on voter registration. The Advancement Project, a civil rights organization, has been successful in fighting the legality of some of these initiatives in the courts but now faces a challenge in the form of President Trump’s Pench-Kobach Voting Commission that is investigating claims of voter fraud.

Panelist Brandon Davis of the digital media firm GPS Impact explained that the world of 2018 elections has been turned upside down by digital technology setting the stage for a change in legislative, redistricting and presidential power for decades to come.

“What that opens up is opportunities for new voices, new energy and new conversations,” said Mr. Davis. In order to take advantage of this brave new world, however, those engaged in the political process have to have a compelling message and find a way to talk to people that targets them personally as well as on the broader issues.

Ifeoma Ike of the New York City Young Men’s Initiative argued for more inclusive representation that does not limit support for leadership by gender orientation, race or party identification and reaches out to people on the margins.

“How do we find ways to bring more people into the conversation?” Ms. Ike said.  “You have to start in the community first, and I don’t think that is something we do in traditional spaces even among people of color.”